By Robert Ham
The Season — you know, the one that ‘Tis — has officially begun, and with it comes the overwhelming flood of holiday music, old and new, upon our tender, frostbitten ears. If that weren’t enough, the rush to capture the attention of potential customers is faster than ever with many Noël-themed releases arriving on the physical and virtual shelves of retailers as early as October. Although it’s easier than ever to sort through the deluge to find the gems amid the lumps of coal, if you still have questions about what album to use to soundtrack your holiday festivities, allow us to provide some answers with five must-have collections (on the Nice List) and five to send back to Santa (on the Naughty List). You know, like the song.
Like her time on American Idol, Kelly Clarkson’s first holiday-themed album forces the singer to wrap her pipes around a variety of musical styles: a little ’60s girl group pop here, a moody jazz ballad there, with a little country swing thrown in for good measure. She’s capable of handling anything producer Greg Kurstin throws at her, including a Vince Guaraldi-like version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that finds her trading lines with country star Ronnie Dunn, a swirling take on Imogen Heap‘s “Just For Now,” and some sharp original material that surrounds Clarkson with a near-overwhelming production style akin to Phil Spector‘s Wall of Sound.
Has “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sounded this sultry before? Have the words “schnitzel with noodles” been sung with more gospel authority? Not until A Mary Christmas has come along. Working with pop maestro David Foster, Blige melts her distinctive vocals all over these holiday standards and holds her own against no less than Barbra Streisand on a version of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The best tracks lock into a glistening ’70s soul groove, giving Blige plenty of room to soar and show off her gospel roots. That said, don’t overlook the chance to hear this 42-year-old chanteuse scat and swing through a jazzed up “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Once you’ve wiped the cognitive dissonance out of your eyes upon seeing that a band named Bad Religion is giving their SoCal pop-punk attack over to a collection of Christmas covers, you’ll hopefully be ready to give this nine-song album a fair shake. Not only because the group is donating a portion of their profits to The SNAP Network, the Survivors Network of those Abused By Priests, but also simply because it’s a blast to hear “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Little Drummer Boy” spun out with such fury and fire. True to form, the band gets the last word in, tacking a version of their well-known original “American Jesus” on to the end.
One of the more unexpected treats found stuffed into the 2013 musical stocking is this Christmas gift from this deep-rooted UK synthpop duo. This collection features some of the pair’s sharp edges as they take the holiday spirit to its extremes on lovelorn originals like “Loving Man” and “Blood on the Snow.” And there’s a lot of fanciful fun in imagining hitting the dance floor to a pumped-up version of “Gaudete,” a Latin hymn from the 15th century. But the true heart of the record comes from the recent loss of singer Andy Bell’s longtime partner, which puts an added emotional spin to his moving performance on “Silent Night.”
Few are the artists that would be willing to turn “Silent Night” into a horn-flecked ska swinger or write an ode to the stranded holiday traveler (“Christmas At The Airport”), but then again there aren’t many songsmiths in the world like this 64-year-old pub rock icon. Elsewhere on this crackling and warm album, Lowe dabbles in a little lighthearted psychedelia, shuffling rockabilly, and lounge-y jazz, maintaining a wry grin and a sparkling wit through it all. His voice may have lost a bit of the bite that he carried with him on classics like “Cruel To Be Kind,” but the delight he evidences here more than makes up for it.
Duck The Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas (UMG Nashville)
Release date: 10/29/13
The stars of Duck Dynasty, the A&E reality show, aren’t going away any time soon, with bestselling memoirs on bookstore shelves and now this Christmas album, which has already shot to #1 on the US Country charts and sold over 200,000 copies. One has to wonder about the sanity of the record-buying public as this album features holiday classics rewritten to include the honk and squeak of duck calls, ridiculous original compositions (“Camouflage and Christmas Lights”), and some particularly rough vocalizing from the male members of the Robertson clan. This may make for a great gag gift, but don’t be surprised if it ends up collecting a thick layer of dust in your CD library after the new year.
Straight No Chaser – Under The Influence: Holiday Edition (Atlantic)
Release date: 10/29/13
An a cappella ensemble doing holiday tunes seems like a no-brainer, but there’s something…off…about this eight-song disc. It may have something to do with the strange production choices, like weaving the voice of soul singer Otis Redding (who passed away in 1967) into their run through “Merry Christmas Baby” or having the group provide harmonies and backing vocals for an original recording of Paul McCartney‘s “Wonderful Christmastime.” By the time you hit “Nutcracker,” a track that adds winking lyrics to the peerless music of Nutcracker Suite so as to turn it into an ironic jeremiad against the titular ballet/theater performance, you may be wondering why you nabbed this for your holiday music library in the first place.
The former Britain’s Got Talent success story returns for a second embrace of the holiday spirit here. And like everything she’s released to date, Boyle’s otherwise fine vocals are given nothing at all to challenge it. All 12 tunes are slow-burning, treacly ballads and carols overrun with dramatic movie soundtrack strings and keyboard drones. Even the usually stirring “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is reduced to a dull roar. Add to it the curious choice of duetting with a recording of Elvis Presley singing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and Home For Christmas ends up coming across as a shiny, but completely inessential bauble.
Various Artists – Psych-Out Christmas (Cleopatra)
Release date: 10/22/13
There’s some humor to be found in this collection of erstwhile psychedelic rockers poking holes holiday tunes old and new, but that all depends on how much you can tolerate a leaden run through “Mele Kalikimaka” by the band Dead Meadow or a wholly unnecessary cover of The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” by a group called Sons of Hippies. Some of it makes perfect sense like a hopped up versions of “Santa Claus,” a song by garage rock pioneers The Sonics, or a track recorded written by The Beatles for a fan club record. The rest, though, feels confused and too ironic for its own good.
A third Christmas LP from this L.A.-based swing-revivalists best known for their appearance in the 1996 movie Swingers was perhaps inevitable considering the relative success of holiday fare like this. And for the most part, the octet does a fine job sashaying their way through standards like “Frosty The Snowman” and “We Three Kings.” It’s just that there’s no conviction behind the whole affair. Singer/guitarist Scotty Morris sounds like he’s sleepwalking through his few vocal turns and the relentless ring-a-ding kitschy feel of these tunes starts to outlast its welcome after a few songs. An album best taken in moderation.